Book Review

Lavender’s Blue by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

I said in Whatcha Reading about reading Lavender’s Blue, “In some ways my brain feels like I am putting on clothing from two jobs ago that fit but feel strange and familiar at the same time.”

Now that I’ve finished it and sat with my thoughts and tried (several times) to write out a longer impression, I agree with my earlier assessment that it is both strange and familiar, but disagree with the idea that it fits. By the end, this book did not fit me well. Both Carrie and I read this book, and we both had a lot of thoughts about it. So you get both of our opinions!

For me, the familiar parts felt like a favorite old sweater: there were zany characters and chaotic, sometimes snort-worthy dialogue. There were some genuinely emotional moments, and scenes that sometimes felt like a welcome meta-commentary on larger concepts. The heroine, Liz, is in a familiar mid-life point where she’s trying to make people, especially her mother, recognize her as an adult and let go of the expectations placed on her, or the reputation that landed on her, as a teenager.

Even with elements that I was happy to experience again, other parts made it harder for me to fully relax into the story. Alas, those parts are legion. By the end I couldn’t ignore them. They stuck out of the seams and scratched at my consciousness, pulling me out of the story and into a lot of discomfort.

And that’s where I think my struggle to articulate lies: I don’t think the characters are located in the Present World so much as a very close facsimile that is near enough to be recognizable but also blithely ignores aspects of setting and history that I could not ignore. The town of Burney itself plays a role, and a lot of the quirks of Burney are also played for laughs because aside from the myriad family dramas, no one is peeking under the surface to examine the structural rot.

For example: the characters live in Ohio in a very small town with extremely well-defined economic and class lines that also appears to be Entirely White. How many red flags is that? The reason why part of the town is destitute is that the ruling family moved their cardboard factory to Mexico putting local people out of work. But this and most of the ‘quirks’ of Burney are played for laughs – there are two known cardboard museums in the world, don’t you know, and one of them is in Burney.

The book’s world and all its characters are in a reality that is really REALLY close to the one I’m living in, with folks dealing with alcoholism, autonomy, social pressures, and the performance of strict gender roles and accompanying expectations. The “Being a Woman in the World is Hot Bullshit” themes of Crusie novels are all present.

But alongside the real and familiar, there is a yawning lack of awareness of the other problems that coexist alongside them. Few of the real and terrible structural and institutional biases that exist in both the book world AND my world are acknowledged much in the book’s world, if at all. That absence is not comforting. It’s not an escape. The absence is screamingly loud for me, and paired with barely a cursory acknowledgement (and one Black side character, who, lucky for her, doesn’t live in Burney) of the social and political forces that are clearly still active in that world, was disorienting.

And then there’s the part where Vince, the hero, is a cop.

I’ve been chasing my tail about whether or not the plot falls apart if Vince isn’t a cop. As a mystery, it makes sense to have a character who has legal authority; Vince actively wants to solve the mysteries and hold the correct people responsible. He’s constantly in conflict with “the way things are in Burney” with a side order of “the way things have always been done,” which is part of that whole universe of structural and political mess that is glancingly acknowledged but not really interrogated in a meaningful way.

Could the story work if Vince didn’t have the authority to arrest people? Probably not.

Did Vince need to shoot the tires out of a car full of teenagers who were driving so recklessly that he had to stop banging the heroine and go answer the 911 call?


That’s not really interrogated either. Eventually Liz, who witnesses the whole thing, comes to the conclusion that he knew when to regain control of himself?

I was not reassured. I can’t go back in time to when I didn’t approach cops as romance heroes with trepidation. My brain doesn’t shut off like that.

So I am a different reader and not all of my brain could relax into the story. There were a few too many points of cognitive friction caused by too many elements that the book sails past but that caused my brain to skid to a complete halt. The charming and witty and emotional moments were not enough to counterbalance my feelings that this book was not a good fit for me. I can’t blithely accept White communities without questioning how they got that way. I can’t maintain equanimity with a cop hero who is mad that his trip to bonetown was interrupted by a 911 call for reckless driving and for that reason he shoots two of the tires during the resulting traffic stop. I can’t mellow my way past a cop hero who is tired of everyone else in town looking the other way when they might possibly be held accountable, but who takes advantage of everyone looking elsewhere when he shoots the tires out of a car during said traffic stop.

I had an altogether uneasy engagement with the story because it was in part appealing to a reader perspective I don’t have anymore. I read it with a knot in my stomach that grew and solidified, and since I finished it, I’ve been thinking about all the jagged edges that I couldn’t move past.

Carrie: Full disclosure, Jennifer Crusie was my romance gateway author and Bet Me is on my top five favorite books list. On the other hand, Bob Mayer’s style has never been my jam, mostly because the military and law enforcement cultures that his heroes usually come from is, at best, not my personal catnip (although I can see why some people adore these kinds of heroes) and, at worst, utterly devoid of any kind of structural analysis.

Also full disclosure, I personally am not a big fan of romances that involve a murder, no matter who writes them, because the tonal switch from “corpse” to “banging” gives me whiplash, even when the book is very well written. That’s a lot of baggage and expectations for me to be bringing to the book, and some of it is purely a matter of personal taste that is beyond the control of any author.

But y’all, this book is a lot, and not in a good way.

Plot twists appear out of nowhere. Some are delightful; some are simply bizarre. Characters are established as having certain quirks and characteristics only to act completely differently later on – not even for plot reasons, just…because?

This inconsistent characterization becomes a huge problem with Vince, who early on is said to have “an anger problem.” Jesus Wept, y’all! You know what is NOT ROMANTIC? A cop with an anger problem. The horrifying scene in which Vince shoots out a teenager’s tires is apparently intended to reinforce that while also showing that he has some self-control.

There are a lot of problems with how Vince, and the tire shooting in particular, are portrayed, and no, Vince saying that he has a code doesn’t fix it:

I hate traffic stops…no one likes getting pulled over and even if they did nothing wrong, it’s still an anxiety producing event. More so for others. Minorities, women. I have a code about that. I only pull over people in those groups if it’s a safety issue. A real one. There’s enough shit in the world. People don’t need more.

The problem from a purely writing perspective is that other than the tire thing, there is absolutely no evidence that Vince has an anger problem. It’s mentioned once and then never again. In fact, one of Vince’s most attractive qualities is his continual state of calm competency. He is also characterized as someone who wants to fight corruption and nepotism, but he uses those same things to his advantage frequently. He’s frustrated that in Burney things aren’t by the book, but he goes off book all the freaking time. So is Our Hero a sensitive, calm, competent, morally upright but non-judgemental guy who you would trust with your life, or is he Dirty Harry? I don’t think anyone knows.

Also, I want to warn adult children of alcoholics and abusive parents that we are evidently supposed to agree that Liz needs to protect and assist her emotionally abusive mom who is also a recovering alcoholic. Her mom might not be drinking anymore, but all the traits typical of a practicing alcoholic are in full play – emotional manipulation, shaming, deflecting, lying, blaming others, making excuses, massive guilt-tripping, and just basically making Liz’s life hellish.

This is not a good person. Liz doesn’t owe her shit. The storyline about Liz and her mom actually hurt my heart. Fuck anyone who tells you that you owe your abusive parent who is still actively abusing you an ounce of time or energy. And yet again, we get weird inconsistencies with the writing. When Liz finally lays down some boundaries, were we supposed to think that’s what she should have done back in Chapter One? Cause that was not showing up in the text, people, far from it.

Sarah, your comment about Burney being almost but not quite our reality is SPOT ON and makes so many things make sense. It’s the same approach that a lot of historicals take – a warped view of a semi-reality.

With all that said, Jennifer Crusie has not lost her ability to write fantastic dialog that snaps in the style of those movies from the 1940’s – think The Desk Set, His Girl Friday, My Man Godrey, The Lady Eve (some of these movies are referenced in the book). I will re-read her chapters many times, because I am helpless in the face of moments such as Liz explaining the lyrics of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” to a first grader. Many aspects of this book that I loved about Crusie’s of yore are here: found family, a woebegone dog, a heroine with a “thing” for something (diners and T-shirts), hilarious scenes in which multiple people talk at once, a great appreciation for food, and a kid who needs protection.

Part of the problem with the book is that it’s marketed like a romance novel, and it’s mostly structured like a romance novel, but it’s actually the first book in a rom-com trilogy, hence a lot of dangling plot threads at the end. I did read the sequel, Rest in Pink, and if anything it’s even more messy than this book is.

Sarah: Usually by the time I reach the end of writing out a review, I know what grade I want to give. I read this book in a single afternoon, and I kept having to put it down to deal with the alienating feelings of reacting very strongly to events that the characters weren’t bothered by at all. Even while I write this paragraph, I’m still thinking about grading, because so many factors influence my evaluation: the small moments I enjoyed (“Birdhouse in your Soul” was a very apt choice for some quirky realism, I agree) versus the moments that collectively formed a rock in my stomach, where I was hoping for an entirely different set of emotions (WHY is literally NO ONE in this book substantially more alarmed that Vince shot the tires out of a young person’s car?!) (During a traffic stop?!!). (WHY.)

This was so hard for me to grade. What do you think? I found parts of it enjoyable, but they can’t counterbalance the parts I found alienating and horrifying.

Carrie: I was thinking D+.

Sarah: Yeah. Let’s land there.

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Lavender’s Blue by Jennifer Crusie

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  1. JenB says:

    Great rescue! This review really highlighted a lot of the discomfort I feel when reading small town contemporary romance and cozy mysteries and put it into words. At the same time, Jennifer Crusie sounds like a writer I would enjoy but I haven’t read any of. Are there other books of hers (with or without Bob Mayer) that folks would recommend?

  2. kkw says:

    Agree agree agree.
    Except unfortunately I don’t think that Burney is ever so slightly different from our reality. It’s our reality as seen through a certain blinkered mindset. To me it just reads as old white male – not that all or even most are necessarily so narrow and self absorbed, but enough that it felt like a recognizably shitty pov. Like wow the gender politics are binary, and the whiteness is blinding. Kids these days. Ugh.
    I was never comfortable with a cop hero, although Suzanne Brockmann had me enjoying military romance, so I suppose anything is possible. Vince is horrific, unappealing, also notably unromantic – he’s way more emotionally invested in a tragic buddy than he is in this new romance. He’s really shoehorned into a screwball romance when he wants to be living in some sort of important referendum on humorless masculinity. If living in a diner were my personal Pemberly he would at least have that going for him?
    The mom’s character and behavior (like most of the characters) is whatever the plot wants it to be, but when she’s most convincing is when she is most toxic. The dad (and frankly the cousin) are also played for zany laughs while I am too nonplussed by the their stated realities to be laughing.
    I never understand why a hallmark heroine goes back to her hometown much less stays there, but I keep finding myself team arson regarding Burney. And maybe we’re supposed to be? It is called Burney. We don’t seem to be building towards an ending in which the status quo, its proponents, and its enablers are brought down. But y’know, this series absolutely cannot decide what it’s about, and I am hoping.

  3. Jill Q. says:

    You know when you run into an old friend and it’s kind of fun to see them but you realize you’re just in very different places now and you’ll never be close like you used to be? If you’re lucky, you can part in a way that holds on to the good memories, even if it means you’re never actually going to get together for that coffee or brunch like you both swear you’re going to.

    Yeah, that’s how I feel about quite a few authors from the 90s/early aughts. Jennifer Crusie among them. Suzanne Brockmann is another great example. Diana Gabaldon, I could go on… They were all so important to shaping my romance reading taste. I’m grateful for what they wrote and that I got to enjoy it when I did. They’re entitled to write what they write and they still have plenty of fans that want to read it.I don’t regret reading them in any way, but I don’t follow their careers and their new books, except in the same casual way you’d see that old friend on social media and like their post.

  4. Arden says:

    I hate that Crusie has hitched her wagon to Mayer. I think her perspective might be a little dated but I think all of their cowrites are truly unreadable.

  5. Penny says:

    Jennie Crusie was my gateway to contemporaries, and to the idea of overt feminist narratives and social commentary in romance. Like the slightly flawed gem of a book, Charlie All Night, a light mystery where the MC is a radio producer, and at the end it turns out the concern about someone selling drugs out of the station is actually the station owners son who gives cannabis away free to people going through chemo, and he makes a speech about legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

    I did a massive comfort reread of her books at the beginning of the pandemic, but that reread was limited to books authored solely by her. Some of them aged better than others, but Faking It had been on my keeper shelf from the start (the audiobook is excellent btw). I read Bet Me so many times I kind of can’t read it again.

    The pairing with BM is unfortunate. My sense is that he brings an authentically white male ex-military or ex-law enforcement voice to the table. One who has not been challenged in any meaningful way. It’s jarring. I mean, in the last book they wrote together, Wild Ride, the character Crusie wrote had a different love interest than the one that Mayer wrote. To me that was a pretty clear indicator that their perspectives are sufficiently divergent that they couldn’t agree to write a single MC pairing together in a book they were co-writing. Of note, the female parter to the character Mayer wrote in that book was trim, athletic badass, which isn’t inherently bad, just not a Crusie MC.

    I bought this book because I miss reading Crusie. But it’s been sitting accusingly unread in my ereader, and I haven’t had the wherewithal to actually open then damn thing.

  6. MariaK says:

    @JenB. I’ve loved a lot of Jennifer Crusie reads over the years. Hers are about the only contemporary romances I read (with a few exceptions). I loved Agnes and the Hitman (can’t remember if Bob Mayer was in on that, but maybe). Fast Women, Welcome to Temptation, and Faking It (a favorite I’ve both read and listened to and I rarely reread). I prefer her longer reads to the category-length. Alas, the two latest are still waiting on my TBR, so I chose not to read the review here. For those of us romance readers in her generation, she’s been a treasure. As for younger readers, perhaps her books and older romances could help you understand us better (if you’re of a mind). Honestly, I find some of the more recent romances too homogenized/pasteurized for my tastes. How fortunate we are to have such a large and lovely library to choose from!

  7. Sandra says:

    I read all three books in the trilogy. It’s Jennie Crusie, so competent, if not her best work. And Bob Mayer is competent in his own way. They did a great job together on Agnes, but Vince is not Shane. I kept wanting to skim past Vince’s POV, so I could get back to Liz. Honestly, I think he had PTSD and needed some serious therapy.

    And Burney is not all that reality-adjacent. I just came back from a visit to the small mountain town my parents retired to. It’s as white as white can be, Southern by the Grace of God, a Baptist church at every crossroads, and run by one man. Not the way we want to live, or what we want to read these days, but still real.

  8. cleo says:

    I used to read Jennifer Crusie’s blog and she was blogging about her struggles with her overdue, unfinished manuscript called Lavender’s Blue at least 10 years ago. It wasn’t a collaboration then. So when I saw that she’d collaborated with BM and actually finished it, I was glad for her, but also knew that I probably wouldn’t read it.

    @JillQ – that’s exactly how I feel about Jennifer Crusie and other favorite authors from the 90’s/00’s – for me it’s Crusie, Jayne Ann Krantz and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I’m grateful I found their books when I needed them, but I’m a very different reader now.

  9. Jill Q. says:

    @cleo, JAK and SEP are actually two I thought of mentioning, but I didn’t want to seem like I was going on too long!

  10. Ele says:

    This book was a DNF for me. I generally love mysteries, have a fondness for small-town Ohio, and have Welcome to Temptation and Faking It among my favorites on the rom-com shelf. I didn’t hate this book–I think it is just that I have really high expectations of Jenny Crusie and when it wasn’t living up, I moved on to something else. I will probably still auto-buy her stuff but perhaps with less enthusiasm. (Agree that JAK and SEP don’t stand up very well to re-reading in modern times, but I must note that JAK–under a different name I think–was one of the earlier authors I came across that had gay marriage in one of her sci-fi books, so points for that.)

  11. Vasha says:

    “Fast Women” was the book that got me hooked on romance. I haven’t reread it though, and haven’t read any of hers in a decade. The 90s were another time. And I say that without any reference to Cruise’s role in the RWA meltdown (as one of the authors in the behind-the-scenes fora — )

  12. cleo says:

    @JenB – Bet Me is probably her most popular book and a good place to start. I loved it and I think it holds up (although it’s hard to say because I can re-read it now but I can’t read it for the first time now). There’s some body shaming of the heroine that’s challenged on page.

  13. Penny says:

    @cleo – I do remember reading her blog awhile back and thinking how difficult writers block could be, especially with a strong loyal fanbase, and high expectations. I can imagine collaboration being helpful. I just miss her unencumbered voice… but I can appreciate floundering and needing an assist.

    @cleo + @Jill Q. – JAK has a special place in my heart, though I never got into SEP. My first romance was an AQ historical and
    I remember it fondly. Delightfully bonkers stepback, too…

    @JenB – Crusie’s last solo Maybe This Time was a horror themed romance set in the 80s and I quite liked it. It predates the recent 80s nostalgia by a few years. Its a little different than some of her other romances but not in a bad way. I’d say its worth a read, especially this season!

  14. Lisa F says:

    There’s nothing worse when an author you love refuses to move with the times. I miss Cruise’s solo romances; she’s blessed with incredible talent, but ugh, this doesn’t sound good.

  15. Christine says:

    I think I enjoyed it more than Sarah and Carrie, but having read their review, I’m realizing that’s because I did a selective amnesia as soon as I was done. There’s some very good JC content here–and a LOT of problematic stuff. I couldn’t agree more about Vince–he’s a hot mess and shouldn’t have either a gun or a badge. I did find reading it to be a genuinely interesting experience, because it prompted me to think about how romance has changed, how I’ve changed as a reader, and how these authors have changed over the years. And all that being said, I just re-listened to Faking It and loved it as much as ever. And Agnes and the Hitman is still one of my favorite books.

  16. I’m going to have to disagree here. I actually enjoyed the book a lot. I’m a huge Jennifer Crusie fan (and loved Agnes and the Hitman, her first collaboration with Bob Mayer). I’ve read all three books in this trilogy and found them to fun and witty. I love the snappy dialogue and the town doesn’t bother me. Of course, that’s just me, but still.

  17. Christine says:

    I also disagree. I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and the next two in the trilogy), think that it has to be read as a first book rather than a stand alone and the characters are revealed more deeply as the story progresses. I found them fun and enjoyable. The small town seemed realistic too, for a town that was once a thriving one factory town and is now dying.

    As a long time Jenny Crusie reader I am glad she found Bob Mayer to help her over her writers block and find her back to her usual self. As a reader of Suzanne Brockmann I also enjoy Bob’s contribution. I do not usually like collaborations but, as with other Crusie/Mayer books loved this one.

  18. Kelly S. says:

    I have read the entire series and enjoyed it. I think I would call them more “cozy mystery” than “romance.” While there are romantic relationships formed throughout the book, especially the one between Liz and Vince, the primary plot to me is the mystery, with the romance secondary. Not sure if that would change anyone’s view about it/them.

    The conversations with Anemone were my favorite!

    I live in a small midwest town and Burney is very familiar and accurate.

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